I’m not sure if it makes a whole lot of sense to launch a new smartwatch at the moment, given the understandable excitement over Apple’s Watch launch. Yet that’s exactly what Alcatel is doing with their new OneTouch Watch, which is available for preorder now, for $149, and starts shipping later this month.
The OneTouch Watch is the first smartwatch from Alcatel and joins a small lineup of gadgets that includes smartphones and tablets aimed at the price-conscious unlocked market. Unlike similar-looking watches from LG and Samsung that are based on the Android Wear OS (and which only sync with Android phones), the OneTouch Watch uses proprietary software that can be synced with either Android or iOS via Bluetooth, using Alcatel’s free OneTouch Move app. It also distinguishes itself by being one of the few smartwatches to offer a built-in heart rate monitor at such a low price point.
As an owner of the $100 Pebble (the original Kickstarter Edition) I’ve grown accustomed to the square, plastic, and – dare I say it – cheap look of my smartwatch. Accustomed to, perhaps, but not content with. I’ve always wished it had a classier design. Pebble’s $199 Steel model goes a long way to addressing that, but it still has that “I’m a digital watch” feel to it. The OneTouch Watch, on the other hand, delivers a smart, sophisticated-looking design with its circular face, brushed-metal body, single-button control, and black rubber strap. It is also far lighter than its materials and size suggest.
The rubber strap uses a notched inner lining, which acts as a micro-adjustable track for the metal closure. As long as you order the right size — it ships in either small/medium or medium/large sizes — you should have no problem getting a perfect fit. Unfortunately, unlike the Pebble, you won’t be able to swap out the factory band for a different one if you grow tired of its look. That’s mostly because of Alcatel’s decision to incorporate the USB-charging tip into the end of the strap, where it lies concealed under a rubberized plastic tab.
This design is both good and bad. The good part is that you don’t need to worry about an external (and oftentimes proprietary) charger. Anywhere you can find an open USB port, you can charge your watch. The bad part (other than not being able to swap bands) is that most of us don’t have nightstands with built-in USB ports. That means plugging your watch into a computer, which you hopefully don’t keep near your bed (right?), or plugging it into a spare USB wall charger since the OneTouch watch doesn’t ship with one. The company should at least consider including a USB cord to help with that. That said, the watch charges fully in an hour and only needs to be plugged in every couple of days under normal use. (Take that, Apple.) My only other complaint with the strap is the rubber retaining loop. It’s too stiff and barely allows the USB-tipped end of the strap to pass through it. It’s a minor niggle, but with an object that you could be putting on and taking off daily, it could become irritating.
Finally, there’s the face of the watch. It’s reminiscent of the Moto 360 in that the actual LCD portion has a rising-sun shape to it (circular, but with a flat bottom), but Alcatel has made the curious decision to use a permanent ring of hour markers around the perimeter instead of displaying these on the LCD. This might make sense on a watch with an hour-hand display that is permanently turned on, but as you’re about to read, that isn’t the case.
I think you’re going to have a love-hate relationship with the OneTouch Watch’s LCD display. On the bright side, it’s bright! And crisp too. It’s readable in both dim and bright environments, and you can cycle through three levels of brightness to suit your taste. However, in order to read it, it needs to be turned on, and that’s something the OneTouch Watch is only willing to do for up to 15 seconds at a time once activated. You can activate it at any time by pressing the power key located on the side, or you can use the built-in accelerometer. You trigger this by executing a sharply defined move with your arm – almost any movement will do, but it cannot be gradual. There needs to be a distinct stopping action in order for the display to come to life. Gentle rolls of the wrist aren’t enough to trigger it, and there’s no way to configure the sensitivity. I found myself having to repeatedly (and using increasingly exaggerated movements) bring the watch into position to get it to respond.
Presumably the lack of always-on is the primary ingredient to the OneTouch Watch’s superior battery life. Given that displays are the biggest draw of power, keeping the display turned off 99 percent of the time has to help a lot. There’s also the size of the display itself. As noted, it does not take up the entire surface of the watch face. Having a smaller LCD than other watches must also contribute to better battery life. But at what cost?
Using the OneTouch Watch is fairly straightforward. Once the display is brought to life via the power key or movement detection, you use a series of taps and swipes to navigate through the watch’s on-board options. These include the primary apps, such as weather, fitness/activity/heart rate, music, photo trigger, compass, and more. You tap once in the middle of the face to select an app or confirm an action, while a tap on the bottom of the face immediately below the display area but above the “6” numeral acts as the “back” function. The screen is very responsive, and apps open quickly.
The OneTouch gives you only three styles of watch face to choose from:
- A “classic” face with minute, hour, and second hands, plus hour and minute indicator lines that line up with the permanent marks on the watch’s dial and a day/date display
- A “minimalistic” version of this face that dispenses with the markers and day/date, leaving only the three hands
- A “digital” face that shows the hours and minutes in big, easy-to-read digits, with a seconds indicator showing dots around the circumference that go from dim to light as time progresses (oddly, these do not begin at the “12” marker, but instead go left-to-right in an arc around the visible portion of the display) and day/date
The analog watch faces are slightly hampered by the fact that all three hands and the hour/minute indicators are the same color (white), which can make it a little tricky to read quickly. This would be helped with a setting to alter the hand colors. [Update: The latest firmware fixes this somewhat: The second-hand is now blue.]
What it lacks in face styles, it more than makes up for in face backgrounds: any of 16 predefined images or textures, 16 predefined solid colors, or a custom setting that lets you pick from any photo on your phone or take a photo immediately. These settings are set from within the free OneTouch Move app, however — only the style can be set from the watch itself.
A note on the OneTouch Watch’s water resistance: Rated as IP67, the watch can certainly withstand casual dunking like having a shower, but oddly, when the accelerometer detects sufficient movement, it activates the watch face. From there, drops of water hitting the face are registered as taps and could cause undesirable operations. I don’t know any way to disable this.
Software and features
The heart of any smartwatch is the ability to deliver notifications to the user. Every other feature, in my humble opinion, is an add-on. The Pebble’s biggest draw for me was the ability to keep my phone in my pocket and be able to see who’s calling (or that I’m getting a call at all!) or texting or emailing. Calendar reminders and notifications from apps like Facebook Messenger are also helpful.
The OneTouch Watch can deliver all of these notifications, but due to a delay getting the OneTouch Watch fully certified for use with Apple’s API, I was only able to test a few, such as missed calls, calendar alerts, and text messages.
What I can report is that there needs to be greater control over how these notifications work. Calendar reminders, for instance, produce a series of vibrations that only stop once you’ve dismissed them with a swiping gesture or when the preset (and nonconfigurable) timer runs out after about 15 seconds. Text messages deliver a single, short vibration with no info displayed on the face until it was activated via motion or the power button. I’d much prefer to have a choice over how these notifications work so that I can tell the difference between a calendar reminder and an incoming call.
If you’re constantly worried about losing your phone or leaving it on the table at Starbucks, you’re going to love the OneTouch Watch’s anti-loss feature. It notifies you as soon as your watch and phone move too far from one another. This distance is remarkably short — as little as 12 feet, by my reckoning, a much shorter leash than the one that Pebble uses (often the full 32 feet Bluetooth is capable of). While this is a good thing when you’re out and about, at home or the office, where you might be in the habit of parking your phone and then go wandering off, it can be a hassle, constantly reminding you with a vibration that you’ve gone too far. At one point I seemed to be sitting right on the edge of connectivity and the alarm would activate every 30 seconds or so. Really annoying. You can disable this feature in the Move app, but it seems a shame to have to resort to that. You know you’ll forget to re-enable it.
One of my favorite extra features on the Pebble is the ability to control basic music functions on my iPhone like play/pause and skip forward and back. When on-the-go, hauling out your phone can be impractical. The OneTouch has this feature too, and even one-ups the Pebble with the ability to control volume. However, all of these functions require taps on the watch face while the watch is awake, so eyes-free operation is impossible (the Pebble makes use of its three physical buttons for these tasks). When a track is playing, forward and back controls are locked out — you have to pause before skipping. There is no progress bar or timer to show you where you are in the song’s timeline and no information about the album — just track title and artist. Moreover, when in music control mode, the OneTouch Watch will not show you the current time (isn’t this supposed to be a smartwatch?). These facts severely reduce the benefit of being able to remote-control your smartphone’s tunes from your watch. Interestingly, if you don’t currently have a music app open on your phone, selecting the music app on the OneTouch Watch does nothing, whereas the Pebble can trigger the last selected playlist regardless of the state of playback on the phone.
The OneTouch Watch also comes equipped with a full suite of health and activity tracking tools including a heart-rate sensor — something you won’t find on a smartwatch at such a low price without venturing away from major brands or going with a fitness-specific device. The heart rate sensor works in conjunction with the accelerometer to provide an easy-to-read dashboard of your current and historical achievements. Using five screens (Steps, Calories, Distance, Duration, and Sleep) plus a dedicated heart rate area, you can quickly see how you’re doing against your goals. Goals are set within the Move app, but progress against the goals can also be seen on the Watch. It’s hard to say how accurate these readings are compared to any other watch, but it at least gives you a way to measure them, and that’s the most important thing.
N.B.: For the moment, the Alcatel OneTouch Watch remains closed to third-party app developers. Because of this (and the fact that it isn’t built on a platform like Android Wear), development of the product’s features will be done exclusively by Alcatel. If this changed, it will greatly enhance the OneTouch’s ability to compete with other smartwatches like the Pebble and Android Wear products.
At $149, the Alcatel OneTouch Watch is an attractively priced, good-looking, cross-platform smartwatch with a competitive set of features and a battery that can last several days on a charge. The built-in USB charging tip makes for a convenient if somewhat limiting design choice. Its bright touchscreen display is easy to read in all conditions, but activating it can be troublesome and could frustrate people who check their watch frequently to tell the time.
However, the OneTouch’s big drawback at the moment is the software. With too few customizations for how notifications work and how watch faces are displayed, potential buyers may want to wait until revisions to the code make these more usable and reliable. That said, Alcatel still has a few weeks before they ship the OneTouch Watch, and it’s possible they will have sorted out these bugs on their final production run (my tester unit was a pre-production model).
Finally, if you’re hoping to see regular updates to the watch’s feature set, you might be disappointed because of the lack of a third-party app development ecosystem.